Gaining Insight on Death

American Literature

Death has fascinated and fueled the imaginations of writers over the course of history. Several of the passages we read in this theme are linked by death. These poems call up a dramatic range of emotions from solitary sadness and dark despair, at one extreme, to hope, perseverance, and dreams of restful peace at the other.

The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, offers a simplified metaphor of the relationship between life and death. Against the eternal rhythm of the timeless sea, Longfellow writes of a traveler who is simply passing through, as we all pass through life. The traces his passage leaves are like footprints left on the shore, destined to last no longer than the next tide. So it is with the traces we leave behind on our world. Longfellow captures the beauty of the world in the sea-like rhythm of this poem, but there is a lonely, desolate feeling to the piece as well: “The day returns, but nevermore / Returns the traveler to the shore.”

In The First Snow-Fall, James Russell Lowell confronts death in its most tragic and personal dimension in the loss of two of his children. Unlike any of the other pieces, this poem presents death in the most immediate and painful way imaginable.

Lowell captures us with a mid-winter world transformed and made beautiful. Then, in this vision of perfect white, he pierces our hearts with “a mound… / Where a little headstone stood.” Yet, the sharp detail of the landscape and the scars of his tragic loss are made endurable by the fall of snow and the passage of time.

Oliver Wendell Holmes has mortality itself in mind, rather than personal loss, in The Chambered Nautilus. In five short stanzas, he takes us through the entire life of the delicate sea creature for which the poem is named; a life of quiet growth and accomplishment, expressed in the magnificent and complex shell it leaves behind. Holmes exhorts us to follow the example of the nautilus in living life to the fullest: “As the swift seasons roll…/ Till thou at last art free, / Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!”

Thanatopsis—a term that means “view of death”—by William Cullen Bryant, takes a more exalted view of death and the afterlife, placing death in a context beyond time and individuality. The first part of the poem summons the familiar “sad images / of the stern agony, and shroud, and pall, / And breathless darkness, and the narrow house,” that is, the very terrors that are synonymous with death.

Having thus frightened us, Bryant then comforts us with an altogether different view of life’s end, reassuring us that “not to thine eternal resting-place / Shalt thou retire alone, nor couldst thou wish / Couch more magnificent.” For the poet, all the world is “one mighty sepulchre,” and “All that tread / The globe are but a handful to the tribes / That slumber in its bosom.”

Having given us this godlike perspective on the human condition, Bryant urges us to live “…sustained and soothed / By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave, / Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch / About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.”

In the end, death may be the only certain fact of life. As we grow to maturity, we gradually learn that someday we will die, and unanswerable mysteries surrounding death make us all question and wonder. These poets offer perspectives on those mysteries and life’s fascinating journey, as well as what lies beyond.